I have long been interested in animal liberation movement as it has been developed by Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation. I am interested in the philosophy as a source of conservation ethics but it seems to me the problem is complicated – conserving native species generally involves killing introduced, feral species and these too should have rights in an animal liberationist ethic.
My take on this debate – as an omnivore who is also a conservationist – is that most people strongly dislike causing pain or distress to animals. Thus we recognise that animals have rights. The issue of the appropriate definition of these rights and whether or not they need to be curtailed is the difficult bit. My view is that animals do not possess the moral agency of humans so that the rights extended to animals should be more constrained than those for humans.
Singer disagrees and argues that any curtailment of rights is speciesism. So I am a speciesist. Jason Soon, over at Catallaxy, makes an interesting post on the the Spanish Socialist Party which will introduce a bill calling for
“the immediate inclusion of (simians) in the category of persons, and that they be given the moral and legal protection that currently are only enjoyed by human beings.”
The justification is that humans share 98.4% of our genes with chimpanzees, 97.7% with gorillas, and 96.4% with orangutans, although I think Peter Singer probably would not even require that. The earthworms would be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in Singer’s ideal world and vote down certain agricultural practices.
I like simians and I certainly respect their rights but I think this proposal is absolutely crazy. Its not a matter of not respecting non-human life. Its a practical issue – human beings are the group in this world who make decisions – not monkeys. Humans make the decisions that determine their rights. For this reason alone the values of humans require extra weight. These values may convey a sense of reverence and love for nature – I hope mine do – but they are human not animal values.